The people of God in the Old Testament bore the sword. They executed criminals and killed their enemies in war. This was done based on the principle of returning harm for harm. Yet Jesus teaches us in Matthew 3:38-48 that we are not to return harm for harm. Rather we are to love our enemies. Whatever loving enemies might mean, it certainly does not mean killing them with the power of the sword.
The central issue in Matthew 5:38-48 is reciprocity. Reciprocity means giving back what you get. You treat others in the way that they treat you.
If someone loves you, you love them in return
If someone harms you, you harm them in return
Jesus teaches us nonreciprocity. This means we don't treat others based on how they treat us-- whether good or bafd. We always give them what is good.
Verses 38-42 look at nonreciprocity in the context of an evildoer who is an authority over us. Verses 43-48 look at nonreciprocity in the context of our equals who are our enemies.
I. Nonresistance Nonreciprocity
You have heard that it was said, 'An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.' But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek turn the other also; and if anyone wants to sue you and take your coat, give your cloak as well; and if anyone forces you to go one mile, go also the second mile. Give to everyone who demands from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.
The principle of reciprocity
Jesus begins with the well known principle of an "eye for an eye." This principle was central to Israel's legal code (and is to ours). Personal vengeance was forbidden, but through the court system one could gain retribution against one who harmed you. The principle is meant to make sure that each offense has an appropriate and equal response. It restricts unlimited retribution.
The principle is found in Exodus 21:23-25; Deuteronomy 19:15-21, and Leviticus 24:17-21. The last passage stipulates that the evildoer is to "suffer the same injury in return... the injury inflicted is the injury to be suffered." In other words, the principle teaches that we can return evil for evil, harm for harm (here through the court system). If someone hurts me, I can hurt them in the same way.
The command of Jesus
Jesus counters with his own command: "Do not resist an evildoer." The word "resist" means "to set oneself against" or "to oppose." In the New Testament this word is used for opposing someone in an argument or a contest (Galatians 2:11; Acts 13:8; II Timothy 3:8, 4:15; Luke 21:15; Acts 6:10).
But it is also used in the New Testament and the Greek Old Testament for opposing a power higher or stronger than you: God (Romans 9:19); giants in the land (Deuteronomy 9:2); the people of the land (Deuteronomy 7:42, 11:25); the devil or spiritual authorities (I Peter 5:9; James 4:7; Ephesians 6:13); and finally, human authorities (Romans 13:2). In this last case the word can take on the sense of rebelling. This word fits nicely with the examples that Jesus gives which, as we will see, relate to authorities who have power over us.
It is important to recognize the context of these verses. Jesus is not only dealing with not returning evil for evil, he is also dealing with this is a specific context- when the evildoer has authority over you. That is, he is dealing with oppression. The three examples that Jesus gives makes this clear:
1. The Cheek Example: "Whoever strikes you on the right cheek" (v. 39b). In its cultural context this refers to an insult rather than an assault. It is a backhanded slap done by someone in a position of authority to someone "under" them. For instance, a master can strike a slave, or a Roman can strike a Jew. It is a way of putting the person in their place and a reminder of who is in charge. In this context it is done unjustly-- by an evildoer.
2. The Garment Example: "To the one who like to sue you and take your undershirt" (v. 40). Only the truly poor had only their clothes to give in pledge for a loan. In this case the creditor is pursuing this poor debtor and forcing him to pay up by use of legal power. The creditor has a right to have the loan repaid. But according to Moses, it is oppressive to take away the poor person's clothing.
3. The Requisition Example: "Whoever compels you to go one mile" (v. 41). This was the practice of the Roman army. As victorious conquerors they had the right to requisision forced labor, among other things. This is an example of military oppression. The giving/loaning of v. 42 has to do with other requisition demands. At times occupied peoples were required to feed and give other supplies to soldiers. At times they were required to loan animals for government use, which were not always returned.
The extreme actions, "turn the other cheek" and so forth are not meant literally. Indeed, it was impossible to deliver a backhanded slap with your right hand to the left cheek (the proper way to do it). When Jesus was struck by an unjust authority at his trial, he did not turn the other cheek. But he did endure the suffering (John 18:22). Jesus is teaching that one is to submit to and endure oppressive authorities to the extreme. These examples teach submission, even to the point of absurditiy. When an authority enemy harms you, don't resist or rebel. Rather submit to their authority. Yield to the oppressor. This is how we return good for evil in this situation.
The same call to non-resistance can be seen in other texts that deal with authority enemies-- I Peter 2:18-23; James 5:1-6 and Romans 13:1-7.
What does nonresistance allow?
Nonresistance does not exclude other possible actions. Jesus told his disciples they could flee oppressive authorities in Matthew 10:23. There are also example of seeking relief from oppression through appealing to a higher authority (Acts 22:25; 25:10ff). One can also speak out against oppression. But in none of these instances are we to return rebellion for oppression.
Also, we only obey the human authority when this does not lead us to disobey God (Acts 5:29; Daniel 6). But even here, we continue to submit to the authority by bearing the consequences of obeying God and not them.
Trust God for your vindication
There is another theme embedded in these verses. Each example has a subtext in the Greek Old Testament that makes a reference to God vindicating those who continue to submit but look to him for help:
1. Cheek: "Turn the other cheek." This connects with Isaiah 50:4-9. In this passage a servant is hit on the cheek, but he trusts in God. He does not resist, but endures and awaits God's vindication.
2. Garment: "Do not withhold your coat as well." This connects with Exodus 22:26-27. This passage states that if the rich lender takes away the clothes of the poor debtor, and the poor one calls out to God, God will act against the rich oppressor.
3. Requsition: "Go the second mile... give to the one who asks/demands of you and do not refuse the one who wants to borrow from you." This example is connected to Psalm 37:21. In this Psalm armed evildoers oppress the righteous. Specifically in v. 21 they borrow but do not repay. The oppressed are told not to fret (v.1), but to trust in the Lord, (v.3) and to continue giving (v. 21). They are told repeatedly that they will be vindicated by God (v.6) and that they will inherit the land (v.11). But the wicked will be judged. In the same way, if Jesus' hearers give and loan to the Romans without resisting, God will act to give them justice.
So all of these examples point to the subtexts that give a clear message: the oppressed are to continue to submit to their oppressors, knowing that God will act to bring them to justice.